Does Japan’s Economy Prove That Neoliberalism Lost?

Economists are rethinking East Asia’s “miracle” as the Washington Consensus falters.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
A crowd of people walk down Takeshita Street in the Harajuku area of Tokyo.
A crowd of people walk down Takeshita Street in the Harajuku area of Tokyo.
A crowd of people walk down Takeshita Street in the Harajuku area of Tokyo on Oct. 10, 2022. Richard A. Brooks/AFP via Getty Images

In case you hadn’t noticed, the world economy’s gone rather topsy-turvy.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the world economy’s gone rather topsy-turvy.

Japan is up while China is down—and in danger of Japan-like deflation. The United States is practicing Japanese-style protectionism and industrial policy, while Japan is championing what Washington used to promote: newer, better open trade rules.

These trends represent a virtual reversal of the neoliberal narrative we had grown used to since the end of the Cold War, when the disintegration of Soviet communism appeared to discredit the whole idea of government-directed economic growth. This was followed by the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s, which in turn touched off a long period of slow, geriatric growth in the granddaddy of the East Asian “miracle.” But the economics profession, having made so many bad calls since this long, strange trip of globalization began, can’t keep up. That’s because most mainstream economists still have trouble admitting that their model of free-market fundamentalism—the “Washington Consensus”—has failed catastrophically, and in several dimensions.

While Brexit has proved a disaster for Britain and the U.S. is floundering with ever-worsening inequality, Japan may well have entered a new chapter of its extraordinary postwar story. It is enjoying a new spurt of activity, including annualized growth of nearly 5 percent in the second quarter and some price and wage increases. These indicators “suggest the economy is reaching a turning point in its 25-year battle with deflation,” as the government said in its annual white paper. Japan also remains socially stable to a degree that should make Americans envious, since it doesn’t suffer the huge income inequality problem that bedevils the United States, though Japan is, of course, far less ethnically diverse. Japan is hardly a perfect model—it is still backward, for example, in recognizing women’s rights—but its Human Development Index is rising among the rich countries. Whether measured by equality, life expectancy, or its stellar jobless rate of 2.7 percent, Japan is today in the “top rung of the most affluent and most successful societies in the world—and now seven and a half years longer than for America,” as economics historian Adam Tooze puts it.

Other economists who have long invoked the Japanese and East Asian “middle way” of market-sensitive government industrial support agree. “I wouldn’t attribute too much to Japan’s quarterly growth rate—but I would give them some credit for not leaving as many people behind,” said Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University. “The big advantage they had was that before their malaise set in, they had achieved a far more egalitarian state.” Or as International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists Fuad Hasanov and Reda Cherif conclude in one recent paper, the Asian miracles’ economic models—mainly the ones used in Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan—“resulted in much lower market income inequality than that in most advanced countries.”

How did East Asia do it? By focusing on export competitiveness and forcing subsidized firms to compete in global markets, these countries created good jobs for the middle class and avoided the pitfalls of failed “import substitution” policies that have characterized bad industry policy in the past across countries from Latin America to Africa. Building upon that, they also imposed progressive tax systems.

By contrast, there is also some agreement that one reason for China’s slowdown is that its dictatorial leader, Xi Jinping, has cracked down too harshly on the market part of the economy, disturbing the delicate balance of government-vs.-market control that began in the late 1970s. Xi “doesn’t seem to know how to use the levers of government with subtlety or within a market framework,” Stiglitz said.

When the Asian financial crisis hit in the late 1990s, the neoliberals at first claimed vindication, saying corrupt crony capitalism and heavy government interference were to blame.

All this is surprising, because in the policy debate with advocates of East Asian-style market intervention, the Washington Consensus had until fairly recently been winning, hands down. “Industrial policy” of the kind practiced by Japan and other East Asian nations was toxic and had to be practiced, at best, below the radar, especially in the United States. Capital flows were heedlessly unleashed around the world and market barriers eliminated at the insistence of both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. When the Asian financial crisis hit in the late 1990s, the neoliberals at first claimed vindication, saying corrupt crony capitalism and heavy government interference were to blame. But after the 2008 crash sank Wall Street—and nearly the entire U.S. financial system—it was clear that the crisis was, in fact, one of global capitalism and the excesses of neoliberalism. The problem in both the U.S. and Asia wasn’t the heavy hand of government so much as its opposite: totally unregulated capital flows and financial markets, not to mention (in the United States) regressive tax policies that favored Wall Street and capital gains earners.

As Eisuke Sakakibara, Japan’s former vice minister of finance and international affairs and one of Asia’s intellectual champions for an alternative model, told me presciently back then: “Global capital markets are responsible to a substantial degree. If you look at the so-called Asia crisis, the root cause has been the huge inflow of capital into Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, and China. And all of a sudden … all of that has [fled] from those countries. Borrowers have been borrowing recklessly, and lenders have been lending recklessly. And not just Japanese banks. American banks and European banks as well.” Sakakibara proved to be correct, and something similar—indeed, much worse—struck the U.S. economy nearly 10 years later.

Beyond that, it was also clear during this three-decade period that China was paying scant attention to trade rules, deploying among other systematic violations industrial espionage, investment controls, currency manipulation, and intellectual property theft. During the same period, American confidence was badly misplaced that the nation’s high-tech advantages would automatically translate into a new manufacturing age for the middle class. It wasn’t just American capital that was fleeing abroad: By the mid-1990s, it was obvious that Silicon Valley-style startups don’t take one’s economy very far when most of the scale-ups—the manufacturing and downstream jobs, in other words—are happening overseas in low-wage countries.

So neoliberalism’s been dying ever since, and Donald Trump and Joe Biden have delivered the death blows. The most significant failure, perhaps, was not purely economic but social and political. It has become clear that in the United States, as well as in other major Western economies such as Great Britain, deepening inequality brought about by an almost religious devotion to neoliberal thinking has generated jarring social instability and populism on the right and left. Trump and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson turned the two democracies that built the postwar global economic system into anti-globalist, inward-looking confederacies. Trump focused his ire on starting a trade war and crippling the World Trade Organization (WTO), and Johnson stormed out of the European Union. How did we get to this topsy-turvy place? A little historical perspective might help.

What’s been playing out on the global stage all this time has been nothing less than a historic test of alternative approaches to economic development—and an unprecedented test of social stability, too.

It began about three decades ago, when U.S. President Bill Clinton rolled into office in the triumphalist aftermath of the collapse of the USSR and decided that markets and globalization were the answer—even for formerly progressive Democrats like him. Command economies were utterly discredited. So was big government in the United States. And in the developing world, government intervention—so-called import substitution, meaning the support of domestic industry and the closing of trade barriers to foreigners—had also been an abysmal failure, especially in Africa and Latin America, leading to corruption and endemic poverty.

But then there was that strange outlier, East Asia. The East Asian “Tigers,” inspired by the postwar champion of managed economies, Japan, had dared to tinker with market forces like demiurges playing with elemental fire, and they had largely succeeded. Around that time, Masaki Shiratori, Japan’s executive director at the World Bank, lobbied passionately for a study of East Asia’s unusual success, its unique and savvy combination of deft government promotion of markets.

The World Bank came up with one—350 pages long—that hesitantly concluded that “market-friendly state intervention” might sometimes work. But it was so heavily hedged that it had little impact. Washington didn’t want to risk turning countries like India into government-supported export giants with East Asian-style policies, especially when U.S. markets were already seen as being under assault and Clinton was preaching “jobs, jobs, jobs.” And U.S. policymakers didn’t want countries like Russia to find excuses for only half-reforming their way out of command economics.

Mainstream economists rolled out their big guns against the idea that East Asia had a viable alternative. In a 1994 Foreign Affairs article, “The Myth of Asia’s Miracle,” Paul Krugman argued that pouring all that capital into industry at home was only going to yield “diminishing returns” and compared the Asians to the Soviet Union, saying that people forget “how impressive and terrifying the Soviet empire’s economic performance once seemed.” Krugman cited in particular the work of economists Alwyn Young and Lawrence Lau, who argued that East Asia’s “total factor productivity” numbers showed East Asian economic growth was entirely based on “inputs” such as rapid labor force increases, not on improved efficiency. It was merely “economic growth on steroids,” Young told me in an interview for Institutional Investor magazine in 1993. “You look impressive, but inside you’re rotting.”

For better or worse, a new global economic consensus is being born, if rather painfully.

Young and others pointed to Japan’s slow-growth period as evidence of this, but he and other economists failed to take into account the ultra-long time frame of the East Asian model—the fact that these countries were laying the institutional groundwork for later improvements in productivity and efficiency. And all the while neoliberalism was being slowly undermined by the departure of U.S. capital for foreign shores, along with cheaper labor. What the Clintonites and their advocates failed to see was that “[a]s capital becomes internationally mobile, its owners and managers have less interest in making long-term investments in any specific national economy—including their home base,” Robert Wade—then a renegade World Bank economist—argued at the time.

Wade and others were, of course, ignored. The historical tide of neoliberalism was too powerful, and the Japanese too meek about asserting their views. Japan, as ever, was bad about “forming universal theories from the economic success of Japan,” Naohiro Amaya, one of the country’s legendary bureaucrats, told me in 1992 when I lived there. It was a culture of pragmatism; the Japanese had no Keynes or Marx of their own. And frankly, few bureaucracies were as savvy as those of the East Asians, with their agile technocratic class and Confucian tradition of service. India, for example, which had grown up with Nehru socialism, had suffered for decades under the “license raj,” which involved a bureaucratic tangle every time someone wanted to start a business.

Yet much of this long-entrenched economic “wisdom” is now cracking—much like the melting glaciers that neoliberal capitalism, during its rampage across the planet, has helped to promote. As Cherif and Hasanov write in “The Return of the Policy That Shall Not Be Named”: “Our summary of 50 years of development showed that only a few countries made it from relative or absolute poverty to advanced economy status,” giving rise to the idea that government can’t make much of a difference. East Asia proved that it could, but “until recently, the experiences of the Asian miracles have been mostly considered as ‘accidents’ that cannot and should not be emulated, at least from the point of view of standard development economics.”

That is no longer the case. For better or worse, a new global economic consensus is being born, if rather painfully. As John Maynard Keynes wrote in the preface to The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money: “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones…”

The new look in economics is being driven by two related factors. One is the anger of the Western middle class—which has been hammered by globalization and the spread of technological advances around the world—and the other is the rise of China. As if awakened collectively from a Pollyannaish, post-Cold War dream, the U.S. political class has, in the space of a few years and across both political parties, cast off Reagan-era free-market thinking and re-embraced the mindset of the early Cold War. In particular, the China threat has reawakened memories—so long buried—of how successful industrial policy was back then.

As Wade—author of one of the original East Asia studies, Governing the Market—has pointed out, the U.S. remains by far the most innovative economy in the world due in no small part to an ongoing, if stealthy, industrial policy. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and several other federal agencies have helped produce U.S. breakthroughs in “general purpose technologies.” Among them, the National Science Foundation funded the algorithm behind Google’s search engine, and early funding for Apple came from the Small Business Innovation Research program. In her 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, economist Mariana Mazzucato notes that all the technologies that make the iPhone “smart” are also state-funded, including the internet, wireless networks, the global positioning system, microelectronics, touchscreen displays, and the voice-activated SIRI personal assistant.

Hence a new conventional wisdom has come out of the closet, economically speaking—at least among policymakers. This fresh approach amounts to what one critic, Douglas Irwin, a Dartmouth College economist and nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, disapprovingly calls “the new Washington-Beijing-Brussels Consensus of building up certain national industries through government subsidies and trade restrictions.” Instead of the Washington Consensus, we are seeing the rise of what some are calling the “Washington Constellation,” a collection of many disparate growth theory concepts.

But the economics profession itself is still not sure it ought to abandon its neoliberal convictions. “Prominent people in the profession still have convictions against this,” said Nathan Lane, a young economist at Oxford who wrote a pathbreaking paper that employed neoclassical economics to explain the success of South Korea’s state investment in heavy industry. “It’s a very uncomfortable thing that’s going on, which is economics made this empirical turn the past couple of decades, and people like myself, who are not attached ideologically to the Washington Consensus, said, ‘We’re just empiricists. Let’s explore this.’ People said, ‘Don’t do that.’ People get extremely reactive to even asking the question of whether it works.”

At the IMF, once the face and voice of the Washington Consensus, acceptance of industrial policy has been an uphill battle over the past few decades. That’s why, in 2019, Hasanov and Cherif were forced to coyly title that working paper “The Return of the Policy That Shall Not Be Named.” A year later, they followed with a higher-ranking departmental paper, “The Principles of Industrial Policy.” But the IMF still published a rebuttal from Irwin this past June.

“The debate over industrial policy has long been locked in a stalemate,” Irwin wrote. “Some see it as essential to productivity growth and structural transformation, while others see it as abetting corruption and fostering inefficiency.” Irwin echoed generations of neoliberal thinking in concluding that “quantitative models suggest that the gains from even optimally designed industrial policies are small and unlikely to be transformative.”

Yet new empirical data from the last few years indicates that many of East Asia’s industrial policy investments from decades ago have paid off big time. Younger economists such as Ernest Liu of Princeton University have debunked some of the old biases against industrial policy—mainly that it lacks the reliable information necessary to target appropriate sectors—by showing that new measures of market distortions can supply just that.

Even as the Biden administration has fully adopted industrial policy, it uses, instead, the term “industrial strategy.” As IMF First Deputy Managing Director Gita Gopinath said in a speech earlier this month, the fund’s advice is “to tread carefully. History is replete with examples of IPs [industrial policies] that were not only costly, but also hindered the emergence of more dynamic and efficient companies.”

It’s unavoidable to conclude that a subject that was once taboo—the idea of government-directed industrial subsidies, along with semi-closed markets and economic nationalism of the kind practiced by Taiwan—is being embraced on all sides.

Nowhere does the success of industrial policy play a greater role in the world today than in Taiwan. One of the reasons Taiwan has become such a hot issue geopolitically—as the U.S. and China vie over its future as a state—is because of its world-beating semiconductor industry, which produces an astonishing 60 percent or more of the world’s chips. This was not the work of the private sector alone but the creation, in 1987, of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which received at least half of its initial funding from the government and over subsequent decades emerged as the preeminent maker of advanced chips. In South Korea, the World Bank once advised against setting up an integrated steel company, saying it wasn’t in Korea’s comparative advantage. But what became POSCO (formerly Pohang Iron and Steel Company) “fairly soon became the most efficient steel plant in the world,” Wade said.

So it’s unavoidable to conclude that a subject that was once taboo—the idea of government-directed industrial subsidies, along with semi-closed markets and economic nationalism of the kind practiced by Taiwan—is being embraced on all sides. A paper summing up these effects, “The New Economics of Industrial Policy,” by economists Réka Juhász, Nathan Lane, and Dani Rodrik, is slated for publication early next year by the mainstream Annual Review of Economics. And the chairman of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors, longtime progressive economist Jared Bernstein, has invited the co-authors to speak to the council later this month, according to Lane.

In the last two and a half years, Biden has enacted what his former National Economic Council director, Brian Deese, calls its “modern American industrial strategy” based mainly on “four foundational laws”: the American Rescue Plan, which brought our economy back from the brink, and more recently the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (under which Washington is subsidizing low-carbon technologies and prioritizing homemade technological leadership).

What this means, Deese said, is that rather than “accepting as fate that the individualized decisions of those looking only at their private bottom lines will put us behind in key sectors,” the government plans a long-term strategic investment “in those areas that will form the backbone of our economy’s growth over the coming decades, areas where we need to expand the nation’s productive capacity.” There have been some promising early results: U.S. manufacturing employment has hit its highest levels since the early 2000s, and the White House boasted in June that nearly 800,000 new manufacturing jobs have been created under Biden, while private-sector companies have announced more than $480 billion in manufacturing and clean energy investments since he took office.

The key factors: building sophisticated industrial sectors with government seeding, export orientation, competition, and accountability for the support received. While the policy is not yet fully articulated, the administration is seeking to emulate some of the key principles of the Asian miracle’s success—and at the same time recognize the deficiencies of neoliberalism.

“If neoliberalism is going to generate inequality, then you need government to compensate the losers,” said former World Bank economist Nancy Birdsall, referring to education, retraining, and other major investments. “That didn’t happen in the U.S. The government came up with sort of pathetic little programs that did not come close to dealing with the China shock” of jobs moving there in the last two decades.

People carrying umbrellas pass an electronic board showing an uptick in numbers on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
People carrying umbrellas pass an electronic board showing an uptick in numbers on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

People pass an electronic board showing an uptick in numbers on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on May 19. Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

In a recent essay in Foreign Policy, Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute, argued that while industrial policy is occasionally useful, the “zero-sum” economics it embraces is bound to backfire based on “four profound analytic fallacies: that self-dealing is smart; that self-sufficiency is attainable; that more subsidies are better; and that local production is what matters.”

Deese has sought to address these common neoliberal objections to industrial policy, arguing the administration is not cherry-picking winners and crowding out private investment but instead seeking to use “public investment to crowd in more private investment, and make sure that the cumulative benefits of this investment strengthen our national bottom line.” By this he means transportation infrastructure, which “literally lays the groundwork for private investment”; government-funded technological innovation; and government investing in STEM education and training at schools and universities nationwide. Harking back to the glory days of the Cold War, Deese said Biden is “making a larger investment in innovation than even President [John F.] Kennedy and the Apollo program that took us to the moon.”

Another major area for industrial policy is clean energy, Deese said. “We know the climate crisis cannot be addressed by market forces alone. We know public leadership and investment is key to the solution. And yet for decades, our country stood by. But now, with our industrial strategy, we’re making the largest investment in clean energy ever in our nation’s history” so as to “encourage the private sector to invest at massive scale.”

Today, ironically, Japan is one of the countries carrying the banner of free trade in the absence of Washington.

And yet aspects of the new policy scheme remain incoherent. One such area in Biden’s plan is his embrace of Trump’s tariffs: Economists such as Hasanov say the East Asian model works much better if there is a vibrant export market around the world to sustain competition.

These inconsistencies arise partly “because the mainstream is still coming up with bogus arguments about crowding out other ‘good’ investments,” Stiglitz said. “It’s an embarrassment. The U.S. is all over the place. The Republicans have no coherent framework for thinking about the role of industrial policies—other than the market can’t compete with China. The Democrats can’t come up with the kind of coherent approach that is needed because of the politics of [Sen. Joe] Manchin—the policy is whatever we can get through Congress.”

Today, ironically, Japan is one of the countries carrying the banner of free trade in the absence of Washington. During the Trump administration, Tokyo helped resurrect the Trans-Pacific Partnership after Trump pulled out by joining with other members such as Canada to renegotiate the successor Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. In a 2019 interview, James Carr, Canada’s then-international trade minister, told me that “the Japanese position, attitude, and support for the rule-based multilateral trading system and fair trade has been exemplary and very important.” This year, Japan sought to rescue the WTO by joining the Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement, a multilateral framework that duplicates the Appellate Body by enabling members to resolve WTO disputes among themselves.

The European Union is also embracing industrial policy, launching the Green Deal Industrial Plan and Net-Zero Industry Act—which emulates Biden’s IRA by giving member states greater flexibility to incentivize private investors and match foreign subsidies such as those available under the IRA. The European Commission also recently launched a European Critical Raw Materials Act, to aid in identifying and securing access to those raw materials that are critical across various sectors of the European economy, and is leading multiple initiatives in artificial intelligence and digital technologies. Today, it is the policymakers who are surging ahead, while economists straggle behind.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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